Is “Suspensive” Historiography the Only Legitimate Kind?
Christopher C. Smith*
I am a PhD student at Claremont Graduate University, doing History of Religions in North America, with a particular focus on Mormon Studies. I also happen not to be a Mormon. I have never been a Mormon. My interest in Mormonism is academic, and I’m especially interested in Joseph Smith. Joseph Smith is a fascinating puzzle to me, and I have struggled to make sense of who he was and what motivated him to do the things he did.
That of course puts me in a difficult position, because here at Claremont I am surrounded by believing Mormons, and so I’m constantly aware of the risk that the way I make sense of Joseph Smith and the Mormon movement may be offensive to some of my friends and colleagues here.
As a result, I’ve thought a lot about this question of whether it’s legitimate for me as a scholar and a historian to talk about LDS truth claims. Is it legitimate for me to express views about Joseph Smith that fly in the face of what Mormons believe? Will this be perceived as an attack? Will I be considered biased and anti-Mormon by my colleagues?
My Mormon colleagues here at CGU face a similar problem, but from the opposite direction. If they speak as faithful Mormons from a position of belief in the Church, they run the risk of alienating non-Mormons, of being labeled biased apologists, and of being seen as non-academic and perhaps even unemployable by secular universities. [Read more…]