A question from an ignoramus: Mormon scholarship

If you hadn’t noticed yet, I am the cute but stupid one at BCC. So here’s what I’m wondering:

How has Mormon scholarship affected the average member of the church?

By ‘average member,’ I mean a person who does not subscribe to Dialogue or any other journal, and if living outside the US, does not have access to books on Mormon topics, in English or any other language. His or her source for information about the church is the church, either by choice or due to a lack of options. I’m not asking this sarcastically or accusatorily, so no need for defensiveness. I assume some elements have trickled (or flooded) into everyday Mormon practice and doctrine, but I would be interested to have some details.


  1. One could argue that the fallout from a certain type of Mormon scholarship in the 80’s and 90’s has affected Mormons by making them less inclined to trust scholarship than they already were!

    I think RSR will have an effect on our perceptions of JS in the future, but not just yet.

  2. I would expect that Mormon scholarship hasn’t affected the average member at all. In my ward up here in Ontario, I’m pretty much the only one who follows the blogs, skims through articles, or even has much of an interest in Church history. I think the average member is looking for peace and security from the Church. If they find it, they come. If they don’t, they may start to drift. Mormon scholarship doesn’t really impact them.

    However, as I describe here, the Church is doing some research into what “issues” are challenging for members (women leadership issues, gay rights, etc). So has Mormon scholarship brought more of these issues to light? or is Mormon scholarship a way to help with these issues?

  3. Norbert says:

    I guess I’m wondering if the scholarship has affected the development of church curriculum or the content of church magazines or conference talks in some way.

  4. #3,

    I think so. The weightier tone of the new JS manual may be somewhat influenced by RSR and the JS 200th anniversary (celebrated semi-officially by an academic conference at the Library of Congress). I also think the Brethren’s experience with <em>The Mormons</em>, especially the involvement of the Church Historian, Marlin Jensen, will start to percolate through (note that that the Church now has an Historian’s Press).

    And the work of FARMS has certainly been referenced in curriculum and conference.

  5. Randall says:

    I believe it’s mostly through a trickle up effect. Scholars create philosophical groundwork for church changes well in advance of them being embraced by church leaders and adopted into church policy.

    Examples include revisions of Joseph Smith history, the counter-argument that led to Blacks getting the priesthood, the evolving status of women in the church, and (currently) a re-balancing of the place of gays in the plan of salvation.

    It seems that having a well-researched author who is also viewed as a faithful Mormon take a somewhat controversial position goes a long way in having the position embraced in the church generally. This isn’t because the average ward member is familiar with the scholarship, but because the correlation department and general authorities are.

    This is why Bushman has had a much larger influence than Compton on the view of Joseph Smith—despite Compton’s protests to the contrary, he is not viewed as “one of us”.

    As a teacher at BYU I would often ask female students if feminism has had a positive impact on their lives. The response was almost universally in the negative. However, if I asked these same students if they had played school sports in high school, the answer was almost universally in the positive. It will take a strong insider voice in favor of feminism for these opinions to change.

  6. Sorry, I guess I misunderstood what you were saying. In that case, then yes, I do think they are being affected, they probably just don’t realize it. As others have said, the Church seems to be a little more “open”, and recognizes that the information is already out there. They seem to be getting better at sharing the message themselves. At the most basic level, it is affect the members of my ward. As I learn more, it just naturally becomes part of how I speak, how I teach, and how I counsel others (I’m currently a bishop). I’m better prepared to answer questions that investigators or our youth may have. This isn’t meant in any sort of arrogant way, but since it has affected me, then you could say it is affecting my members.

  7. If you’re not talking about a particular period of Mormon scholarship, then I would point out that scholarship and curriculum crossed paths in 1957 when Hugh Nibley’s An Approach to the Book of Mormon was the priesthood manual for that year.

    In recent years I believe the Ensign has published some good scholarly articles. One I particularly enjoyed was The Good Samaritan: Forgotten Symbols by John W. Welch.

  8. I think there’s been a change in dealing with church criticism. it used to just be wack-job sectarians with Chik (sp?) pamphlets answered fairly flatly from within. our attempts to deal with external critics has evolved some and scholarship has aided us somewhat here.

    There is of course the sad back side, which is that serious scholarship has been broadcast in garbled form by our career apostates at the Lighthouse Ministry.

  9. Mark IV says:

    I’m wondering if the scholarship has affected the development of church curriculum or the content of church magazines or conference talks in some way.

    I’d say yes, but we are often not aware of the influence. For instance, there are people from FARMS on the cirriculum committee. How could their scholarship not influence what comes out in the manuals?

    I believe the work done by Bush and Mauss in Dialogue was instrumental in the lifting of the priesthood ban. (I realize that proposition is debateable.) There were people baptized yesterday who will never hear of Lester Bush or Armand Mauss, but their lives re nonetheless changed by the work of those two people.

  10. Norbert–
    I think “scholarship” has little affect on English-speaking members and even less on non-english speaking members who likely could not read any scholoarship they encountered.

    But, the mention of the Jack Welch article is apt. I don’t think anyone in my ward would be able to name Welch, but the 10% of my ward that read that treatment of the Good Samaritan in the Ensign liked it. Of course, had I made a comment in Sunday School offering a different interpretation for a bible story than the one in the Institute Manual, I would have been told to shut up and to stop disagreeing with Jesus (yes, it has happened). Since this “scholarship” was in the Ensign, it was accepted. Have they heard of FARMS? Dialogue? No.

  11. Mark IV says:


    But remember, Welch edits BYU Studies and Dan Peterson runs FARMS. Their scholarship is what gives then access to the pages of the Ensign and the lesson manuals.

    Norbert, there is another question lurking here, right under the surface:

    How have church cirriculum, church magazines, and conference talks affected the average member of the church?

  12. Mark–In an American ward where only a handful of the adults have college educations and none of the youth aspire to go to BYU, it doesn’t actually matter who edits BYU Studies–it is not read.

    Your best bet for penetrating this crowd is easy reading from Deseret Book, or maybe THE WORK AND THE GLORY type fiction.

    The curriculum is discussed but probably read only by the teacher, church magazines maybe get 10%, but people feel free to skip articles not authored by a GA, and conference talks get discussed if they are memorable.

  13. While the Joseph Smith Papers Project has not directly affected very many rank-and-file church members (I recall seeing vol. 2 of PJS being sold for very cheap after my mission because no one wanted it), the project has had a tremendous impact on the way that the hierarchy approaches history. The project (as well as the MMM volume) has forced many General Authorities to confront some of the thornier issues from our past, and at least for now it appears that the approach advocated by the project leaders, Rick Turley, and Elder Jensen is winning out, and we’re seeing it affect church publications. Work on the new JS manual started well before RSR was published. I am not privy to name names, but from what I understand one of the primary editors of the manual is also a prominent member of the Church Archives staff as well as an editor for the Joseph Smith Papers. I see the manual as more the product of decades of work by Dean Jessee rather than the product of Bushman’s scholarship.

  14. Ardis Parshall says:

    Yes, I think it has, illustrated by almost every point where you can think of a “quaint” story or dot of doctrine that makes you cringe because it sounds like something out of the “ign’rnt” rural past. For example, you don’t often hear anymore, certainly not from official publications, that Lehi landed in a precisely identified spot in South America, or that some piece of the ancient Bonneville shoreline is a Nephite-built dam, or that fossils exist because God cobbled the Earth together 6,000 years ago from free-floating chunks of destroyed planets where those alien creatures lived, or that three boys died after carrying the handcart pioneers across a stream and were guaranteed celestial exaltation for their sacrifice, or that there is a book in the Basle library where a medieval monk prophesied the Restoration.

    Of course all those stories DO still float around because they appeal to an uncritical desire for miracles or proof of faith or whatever, and they probably always will (think of them as fossilized urban legends). But to the extent that they no longer appear in official sources so that the credulous cannot appeal to those sources for authority, Mormon scholarship is having an effect on the member who gets his information about the church from the church.

  15. a random John says:

    I’d agree with Ronan and perhaps take it a step further. The general membership looks down on scholars that examine LDS topics and “intellectuals” as people that have put their pride before their faith and have gone astray.

  16. arJ: Wouldn’t most of those same people look at ‘intellectuals’ outside of Mormonism the same way? I think it’s safe to say that ‘scholar’ and ‘intellectual’ are bad words for many Americans.

  17. I’ll echo what has been said above — that I think that the fruits of LDS scholarship are starting to filter into Church curriculum materials, magazines, and conference talks.

    My own reading is that said materials and talks took about a 50-year detour towards a very conservative and literal Biblical interpretation largely due to the influences of Joseph Fielding Smith and Bruce R. McConkie, starting with Smith’s (unauthorized) publication of Man: His Origin and Destiny (1954). While some LDS scholars (e.g., Nibley) never bought into that trend, the swing back from such an approach started in the 70s with BYU’s hiring of scholars such as Kent Brown and Wilford Griggs. (When I had OT/NT classes from Kent Brown back then, he used more non-LDS commentaries than LDS commentaries for our studies.) From what I can see, the swing back has continued for the past 30 years, particularly as new hires have replaced some of the old guard in the BYU Ancient Scriptures and Church History and Doctrine departments. (However, that’s an outside and distant observation; those with a closer view should feel free to correct me.)

    The last bastion of strict Biblical literalism in the Church appears to be the Church Education System (CES), which produces the Institute manuals, which in turn tend to influence the Sunday School manuals. I have seen a few posts on LDS blogs that indicate that all these manuals are being revised to reflect less of Smith and McConkie and more of current (albeit conservative) Biblical scholarship, but again, I have no direct knowledge of that.

    The real issue, in my mind, is: what influence does or will LDS scientific scholarship have on Church curriculum and materials? Said materials still overwhelmingly adhere to the ‘4004 BC’ chronological model followed by fundamentalist Christians, even though all scientific evidence contradicts (or, at least, fails to support) it, and even though (IMHO) the Book of Mormon itself contradicts it (see here). However, I think you’d be hard press to find a single LDS professor of biology, geology, anthropology, archeology, history, etc., at BYU who would defend such a chronology.

    Note that LDS apostles such as Talmage, Widstoe, and Merrill were distancing themselves from this chronology some 70-80 years ago and clashed with Smith (who was much younger) over his views. After they died, Smith came out with his book, which he followed with other writings; a few years after that, McConkie came out with Mormon Doctrine; and LDS curricula and other materials were influenced for decades to come. (For a few more details and some citations on all this here; scroll down about halfway).

    Note that I do believe that there was a literal Adam and Eve, and that there was some kind of catastrophic event that ended up as the ‘Flood’ story. I just think we have the time scale off, as well as the geographical scale (and actual events) of the Flood. FWIW; YMMV. ..bruce..

  18. From my perspective it has little effect. I believe that Ronan and John are correct. It doesn’t help when comments like #5 exist as they suggest an arrogance that the average member finds offensive. I might add that I agree with them. The lack of humility in much of the LDS scholarly world discredits them in my eyes and the eyes of most of my fellow members.

    John Welch, Dan Peterson, et al don’t convey that same arrogance so they are much more accepted by the Church at large. I believe that has more to do with why they appear in the Ensign than anything else. Humble scholarship is still on track. Haughty scholarship is not. Sadly, there is much more of the haughty than the humble in all of it. Generally speaking we are way too impressed with our own genius. We’ve forgotten what Hugh Nibley would always say “There aren’t any of us who know a thing. We are all ignorant.”

  19. Oops, one of my paragraphs in my comment above (#17) read just a bit confusingly. Let me restate it here, dropping just one word (and corrected one typo):

    The real issue, in my mind, is: what influence does or will LDS scientific scholarship have on Church curriculum and materials? Said materials still overwhelmingly adhere to the ‘4004 BC’ chronological model followed by fundamentalist Christians, even though all scientific evidence contradicts (or, at least, fails to support) it, and even though (IMHO) the Book of Mormon itself contradicts it (see here). I think you’d be hard pressed to find a single LDS professor of biology, geology, anthropology, archeology, history, etc., at BYU who would defend such a chronology.

    There; that reads a bit more clearly. ..bruce..

  20. re # 12, ESO, your comments might be missing the mark in terms of what the original post is asking. That is, even though you are correct that most Mormons do not read BYU Studies or FARMS or know the names of people involved in those efforts, it does not mean that Mormon scholarship is not affecting them.

    My answer to the main post would be to look at the trickle down into the way the Church looks at its history, origins, and even doctrines from the work of Hugh Nibley over his expansive career. That is where, I believe, you can see how Mormon scholarship has influenced run-of-the-mill members who themselves have no use for or interest in scholarship or intellectuals. Unbeknownst to them, what they learn at Church on Sunday is largely influenced on a fundamental level by work done by Hugh Nibley — or those following in his footsteps including those who founded FARMS almost thirty years ago. A lot of this stuff has been written into the fabric of things we learn in the Church and is not readily separable from information deriving from other sources.

  21. john–perhaps my writing is unclear, but I agree with the trickle-down. Ideas bandied about by scholars eventually affect lay church members, but only after they appear in “sanitized” forums, like the example of the Welch article in the Ensign.

    I think many (most?) Church members are troubled by ideas and theories that cannot readily be identified and verified as “approved” so until it is in a Church manual, magazine, or conference talk, it will likely be dismissed.

  22. How has the Bloggernacle affected the average member of the church?

  23. I’m dating myself here, but I think there was a confluence of issues when the whole Mark Hoffman/Salamander Letter issue resolved so negatively. The influence of the “conservatives” such as BRM and others had been at odds with the Leonard Arrington inspired openness into history and scholarship in general.

    For those who don’t remember, there was a huge intake of collective breath, and a retreat from a lot of the inquiry that had transpired when Hoffman’s forgeries came to light. To that end, I think, we saw a period that looked down on scholarship in the church in general, and to a distrust of scholars and intellectuals, that is slowly coming to an end.

    I credit the openness of President Hinckley, and the explosion of the internet, for reversing a harmful trend. As the church faced the growth of anti-mormon and outside scholarship on the internet, the only tow logical positions were to respond in kind with more information, and greater transparency, or further retrenchment into an even more regressive stance on scholarship and history. The latter, IMO, was just not feasible, and not in the best interests of the church, and no one I think understood that better than President Hinckley.

    But for the average member over 40, scholarship is not viewed, from my perspective, as very important, or having much impact. Younger than that, and you’ve grown up in a more information-centric world, and the expectations are different. To that end, I suspect it could be an effort by the grass roots and the top leadership of the church working towards each other. As others have pointed out, the Ensign is venturing into newer and different fields, and the Church’s website is a reflection of the “more information is better” perspective. The latest JS manual is also a reflection of this trend.

  24. ditto, #23, from someone else over 40. It affects my generation less than my youngest siblings’ and children’s generations.

  25. Queuno, I don’t think you can say that the Bloggernacle (or the rest of the Mormon/DaMU internet) has affected the average Mormon, except to the extent that it’s out there for people to find if they are interested.

    OT: Everybody keeps raving about how wonderful and deep the new JS manual is. I don’t get it. It seems just like more of the same to me. I’d love to see a post that compares it to earlier manuals using a variety of criteria, like use of quotes in context, historical accuracy, presentation, usefulness of the questions as discussion starters, etc.

    The cover picture alone makes me think the church isn’t serious about a realistic portrayal of Smith. Since when is he BLOND?

  26. I’ll echo what has been said above — that I think that the fruits of LDS scholarship are starting to filter into Church curriculum materials, magazines, and conference talks.

    I would agree with this statement, and the general discussion that supports it, if we clarify that when we say scholarship, we really mean apologetics or apologetic scholarship. Non-apologetic, anti-LDS, the New Mormon History, or simple general scholarship as is done by Jan Shipps, only trickles down as it affects what the apologetics are addressing.

  27. I think the affect Mormon scholarship has had on the average member is a general confidence among the general membership in the depth and breadth of the restored gospel, and that it can’t be proved or disproved with a simple wave of the hand. There is substance in the gospel, and I think that reflects and spreads throughout the membership.

  28. Ann–
    “isn’t serious about a realistic portrayal of Smith. Since when is he BLOND?”

    A victim of whitewashing? Maybe he gets more blonde as we get more righteous….

  29. A prediction: Mormon scholarship on Book of Mormon history, geography, etc., especially as it relates to the relationship between BOM travelers to the western hemisphere and the scope of their presence and influnce here, will have a profound impact upon the average member’s understanding of what the BOM is really a history of. Our understanding of Lamanites, for example, has already changed (see changes to BOM introduction), and will continue to do so.

  30. Velikiye Kniaz says:

    Ann #25 and ESO #28;
    You will find in the Daughters of the Utah Pioneers Museum on Main Street in Salt Lake City, (just west of the Utah State Capitol Building), among the pioneer, artifacts, memoralbilia, etc. at least one clipping of Joseph Smith’s hair and it is sandy blond. This matches with other clippings to be found in the collections of the Church Historical Department as well as others in various collections. From my understanding, i.e. as it was explained to me while at BYU by one of the professors of Church History that it was decided to portray the Prophet as having brown hair because blond hair was considered effeminate in the first part of the 20th century. Blond men were also considered to be less courageous and to possess a weaker character in that era. As an artist and erstwhile portraitist I found this bit of historic visual modification intriguing. Nonetheless, from the physical evidence Joseph was indeed a blond, although there are some who would claim that the hair has ‘faded’ or been exposed to too much light. Evidently then, all samples in their various locations were exposed to precisely the same type and amount of light for equal amounts of time. Thus the portrait on the manual is nearly correct. I say nearly correct because it actually should be somewhat lighter than portrayed.