Terryl Givens is a Professor of Literature and Religion at the University of Richmond, and author of many books and articles, including The Latter-day Saint Experience in America, The Viper on the Hearth: Mormons, Myths, and the Construction of Heresy, and By the Hand of Mormon.
Richard Bushman is a Professor of History Emeritus at Columbia University and author of Joseph Smith and the Beginnings of Mormonism, The Refinement of America: Persons, Houses, Cities, and more recently, Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling (coming soon in paperback!).
Both professors have edited and authored for a number of independent and Church-sponsored publications, and the two co-lead each summer at BYU what can be described as the Mormon Studies Dream Camp: a Summer Seminar on varying topics of interest to scholarly Latter-day Saints. This year’s seminar will deal with mormon thought during the fascinating 1890-1930 period. They were gracious enough to answer a few of our questions, presented in two parts.
BCC: Students seem to graduate from Seminary to institute. It is not uncommon for a student to have the full battery of institute classes and still be unaware of “Mormon Studies.” Do you find many undergraduates that have the volition and background to participate in your Summer Seminars? Is there a typical trajectory that such students follow to arrive where they have? What is the undergraduate to graduate student ratio? Is there a willingness on the part of BYU to encourage undergraduate participation?
Terryl Givens: At present, we are only targeting grad students for the summer seminar program. And what we are finding is that LDS students are, by and large, wonderfully conversant with their own historical tradition. There is no typical background or preparation that brings students to the seminar. We have had history students, religious studies students, and last year one from electrical engineering and one from business. What they all share is a passion to engage their beliefs and their past in a more intellectual and reflective way.
Richard Bushman: In the first years, I accepted about equal numbers of undergraduates and graduate students with a slight predominance of graduates. The Smith Institute had good luck employing undergraduates as research assistants and I kept on in that tradition. My initial intention was for the summer seminar to provide research on Joseph Smith that I could use in my book. On the whole, the undergraduates did almost as well as the graduates. However, as the years went by, I came to see the seminar more as a training ground for graduate students on their way to a career in scholarship. I realized that the research we accumulated was less valuable than the fellowship of the common endeavor. LDS graduate students came to recognize each others’ capacities and spiritual commitments and benefited from that fraternal relationship more than from the specific work they did.
After Terryl joined me in the seminar last summer, he immediately saw the preparation of scholars in the making as our primary aim. He sees the benefits of bringing together young LDS scholars to sustain one another. That revised purpose will doubtless affect our admissions decisions from here on out, though I am reluctant to give up the admission of undergraduates entirely.
BCC: BYU seems to be priming itself to be the big player in Mormon Studies with the formation of the Maxwell Institute. How has working with BYU changed over the years and what do you see in the future as their role? Do you foresee any collaboration with the nascent developments at USU and Claremont?
TG: BYU has both strengths and disadvantages they bring to the table of Mormon Studies. Their strengths are their faculty and archival resources; in the former case especially, much of the best scholarship on Mormon topics has obviously been coming from BYU for a long time. The disadvantage is that anything coming out of BYU on the subject of Mormonism will continue to be viewed with suspicion by large numbers in the academy who think that “faithful scholarship” is an oxymoron. So I think BYU will continue to play a tremendously important role through individual efforts of devoted scholars, and institutionally through the Maxwell Institute and through organizations like the Mormon Scholars in the Humanities that straddle both realms.
RB: I think that BYU, and particularly the Maxwell Institute, will want to cooperate with programs like those emerging at USU and Claremont. Already there is cooperation with USVC. I am not aware, however, of any major plans to go heavily into Mormon Studies. Ambitious though the Maxwell Institute may be, it will be constrained by the BYU’s situation. It is after all a branch of the official church. A division of labor may develop where BYU scholars prepare materials for Church audiences, and LDS scholars in the diaspora engage in dialogue with the larger world.
BCC: There have always been sensitive topics in the Church. Historically, BYU and BYU Studies haven’t been particularly friendly to discussions of such things. Do you see your publications as opening the discussion up beyond closed doors? Are BYU and BYU Studies willing to host discussion and publish on topics that they historically haven’t?
TG: I have never set out self-consciously to push the envelope or challenge the orthodox boundaries of Mormon studies or historiography. I don’t think I have engaged in particularly controversial questions, but neither have I deliberately avoided them. Its just that I find myself fully occupied trying to address questions that I find personally urgent: was there more to Mormonism’s contentious relations with the mainstream than traditional historical accounts tell us? How does one explain the potent capacity of the Book of Mormon to draw millions into its orbit, while simultaneously outraging other millions? Is there really such a thing as Mormon culture? What kind of philosophical and theological depth do we find when we examine Joseph Smith’s thought? Generally, I find much more to celebrate than to deplore when I attack these questions.
As for BYU and BYU Studies, I think in an environment where dissident and alternate voices proliferate in very formal settings, there has been a tendency for many participants in the dialogue to define themselves against the “other,” and this has resulted in more polarization than I would like to see. Recent efforts of some to organize Mormon Studies around facile categories like “faithful scholars” and “New Mormon Historians” and the like aggravate rather than ameliorate this problem. Mormon intellectual culture is not a two party system.
RB: I don’t see many signs of a shift yet.
BCC: The zeitgeist at the LDS Archives seems to be one of opening and liberalization. It would seem that this is also the case at BYU. Why do you think that is?
TG: No one reason. The internet has made our cloistered guardedness of the past impossible; perhaps generational changes, shifting opinions about the value of scholarship to the church, the professionalization of Mormon history writing, the widespread scholarly interest in Mormonism, more moderate coverage by the media and the openness of publishers to let Mormons tell their own story, all have conspired to make the church less suspicious and guarded.
RB: The Archives are now quite open to serious scholars. Even the historians that we label as anti-Mormon work there. There is probably a realization that little is gained by hiding historical materials.
BCC: How long will these Summer Seminars continue at BYU, and who decides that? What are your goals for the conference? What would qualify as a success?
TG: We hope to continue these seminars indefinitely, though not every year. I see our goals as two-fold: provide an intellectually rich environment for the intensive study of Mormon doctrine and history, to assist in the training of the next generation of Mormon scholars who will be doing the important work in any number of fields which intersect with those areas. And we hope to do this in an environment that lends powerful confirmation to the truth that the strongest faith and the most rigorous scholarship are mutually sustaining.
RB: The Summer Seminars are funded by outside money. BYU provides space, use of the library, and many valuable amenities but does not pay any of the direct expenses. Right now we are going from year to year, with sufficient funds for 2007. Beyond that it is impossible to predict.
I would also like to sponsor conferences for LDS scholars like the one for graduate students in Divinity Schools and religious studies programs at Yale February 16-17. I counted it as a great success because I felt the participants were truly sincere and earnest. They were talking about issues involving faith and knowledge that lie at the very heart of their spiritual and professional lives. We need to collect other groups of young LDS scholars to discuss issues of comparable weight.
Next, in Part II: community conflicts, womens’ issues, and (of course) blogging.