290–291: Past, Present, and Possible Futures of Mormon Studies

MSR-1The academic study of religion has been around for a long time. And although there are many examples of books and articles that have used academic lenses to explore various aspects of Mormonism, it’s only in the past two decades that we’ve begun to see the formal rise of “Mormon Studies.” In this episode, Brian Birch and Spencer Fluhman, two thought leaders in this emerging field, help us understand Mormon Studies. What types of inquiry fit under this umbrella term–and how settled is the definition? What are the key developments in the growth of the field? What institutions have Mormon Studies programs or are otherwise engaged in teaching of Mormonism in the academy? What are the prospects for the field’s continued growth, and do prospective students have reasons to be cautious about finding academic careers should they make Mormon Studies one of their primary areas of emphasis? Birch and Fluhman are very forthcoming about these and other questions, and they also let us peek a little bit behind the curtain into past and contemporary debates at places and organizations such as Utah Valley University and the Brigham Young University religion department, the Neal A. Maxwell Institute, as well as the Mormon Studies Review and Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought. Along with Mormon Matters host Dan Wotherspoon, who also has studied religion in the academy, they also share their own experiences studying their religion through academic lenses. How has it benefited their feeling at home within Mormonism? What other payoffs from their academic work have they felt in their own spiritual journeys?

Please listen and then share your questions and own experiences and observations in the comments section below!

Links to items mentioned in the podcasts:

Mormon Studies Review, Vol. 1 (2014). PDF of the inaugural issue, which contains the roundtable discussion spoken of on the episode, plus much else!

265-266: “Mormonism as a ‘Religion,'” Mormon Matters podcast, 3 February 2015

Stephen C. Taysom, ed., Dimensions of Faith: A Mormon Studies Reader (Signature Books, 2011)

Quincy D. Newell, Eric F. Mason, Jan Shipps, eds., New Perspectives in Mormon Studies: Creating and Crossing Boundaries (University of Oklahoma, 2013)

Terryl L. Givens, Wrestling the Angel: The Foundations of Mormon Thought: Cosmos, God, Humanity (Oxford, 2014)

David Howlett, The Kirtland Temple: The Biography of a Shared Sacred Space (University of Illinois Press, 2014)

Philip A. Barlow, Mormons and the Bible: The Place of Latter-day Saints in American Religion (Oxford, 2013)

Jan Shipps, Mormonism: The Story of a New Religious Tradition (University of Illinois Press, 1987 paperback)

Armand L. Mauss, The Angel and the Beehive: The Mormon Struggle with Assimilation (University of Illinois Press, 1994)

Sterling M. McMurrin, Theological Foundations of the Mormon Religion (Signature Books, 1965 reprint)

Sarah Barringer Gordon, The Mormon Question: Polygamy and Constitutional Conflict in Nineteenth-Century America (University of North Carolina Press, 2002)

Kathleen Flake, The Politics of American Religious Identity: The Seating of Senator Reed Smoot, Mormon Apostle (University of North Carolina Press, 2004

289: The Gift of the Holy Ghost     

ConfirmationThis episode on the gift of the Holy Ghost is the fourth in a series discussing what the Articles of Faith refer to as the first principles and ordinances of the gospel. All four have featured Samuel M. Brown, author of the book First Principles and Ordinances: The Fourth Article of Faith in Light of the Temple, with this episode marking the third time he is joined by philosopher and theologian Adam S. Miller. How is the Holy Ghost, and more specifically the “gift of the Holy Ghost,” generally viewed and discussed by Latter-day Saints? Do we as Mormons explore it with as much richness as it deserves? In this discussion, Brown and Miller focus primarily upon the Holy Ghost as seen most clearly in the deep relationships in which we are immersed in families as well as with each other in the body of Christ. In the ordinance in which the gift of the Holy Ghost is bestowed, the individual is first confirmed as a member of the church and congregation, and only then do they receive the Holy Ghost. Are both parts essential? Is the Holy Ghost even separable from the context of community? And might we also consider the congregation’s “common consent,” its affirmative response in welcoming the individual into the community, as a key element of this most important ordinance? Is it in the ordinance itself that we “receive” the Holy Ghost, or might this simply be a promise of something fully received later? Finally, what is the purpose of the Holy Ghost? How does it affect us?

Please listen and then join the conversation in the comments section below!


Samuel M. Brown, First Principles and Ordinances: The Fourth Article of Faith in Light of the Temple (Neal A. Maxwell Institute, 2014)

Samuel M. Brown, In Heaven as It Is on Earth: Joseph Smith and the Early Mormon Conquest of Death (Oxford, 2012)

Adam S. Miller, Grace is Not God’s Back-up Plan: An Urgent Paraphrase of Paul’s Letter to the Romans (2015)

Adam S. Miller, Letters to a Young Mormon (Neal A. Maxwell Institute, 2013)

Adam S. Miller, Rube Goldberg Machines: Essays in Mormon Theology (Greg Kofford Books, 2012)

287–288: Joseph Smith’s Use of a Seer Stone in Bringing Forth the Book of Mormon


seer-stone-joseph-smith-book-mormon-ldsOn Tuesday, August 4th, the LDS Church in conjunction with the Community of Christ held a press conference announcing the newest volume in the ongoing Joseph Smith Papers project. This new two-volume work contains high definition color pictures of each page of the Book of Mormon “printers manuscript” (owned by the Community of Christ) on one side of each page spread, with a transcription on the other. It will be a wonderful boon to scholars and others interested in the Book of Mormon and processes by which it came into print.

What has overshadowed the news of this important publishing effort, however, is the fact that the book contains four full-color photographs of a chocolate-colored, striated stone that is purported to be the seer stone Joseph Smith used to receive the English words he used in dictating the Book of Mormon. Scholars and others well-read in Mormon origins have long known about this seer stone and its use in the translation process (and the Church last year actually released an essay in its Gospel Topics series that speaks about the stone), but actually seeing it has forced them to confront again–and startled others who are learning of it for the first time–just how steeped Joseph Smith and early saints were in what D. Michael Quinn has labeled a “magic world view.”

This publishing event now calls for careful and informed exposition. Didn’t Joseph Smith say there were interpreters (what Latter-day Saints came to refer to as Urim and Thummim) in the stone box containing the plates that were like spectacles attached to a breastplate? Did he use those interpreters at all? What, exactly (or as best we can tell from a scattered record), was the process by which the Book of Mormon came about? How did the words to speak come to Joseph? Were they printed English words that appeared on the interpreters/seer stone that he then said aloud to his scribes, or was the process less mechanical than that, more of a conceptual and revelatory process?

With D. Michael Quinn, Ann Taves, and Ron Barney as expert guides, this two-part Mormon Matters episode explores these and many other questions about the processes. It also spends a significant amount of time on the more meta-issues that are now arriving for those startled to learn of or see the stones. How could we as a church allow for so long such a mismatch between the typical version, told both in prose and visual images, of Smith’s translation of the plates and what the historical record actually shows? Has there been a deliberate cover up, or something less deceptive and more understandable given the historical knowledge level of LDS leaders? How do these panelists, as well as Mormon Matters host Dan Wotherspoon, frame for their scholarly and/or faith lives a full awareness of Smith’s  use of stones and other “magical” objects?

Please listen and then share your questions and thoughts in the comments section below!



Ann Taves, Religious Experience Reconsidered: A Building-Block Approach to the Study of Religion and Other Special Things (Princeton, 2011)

Ann Taves, Fits, Trances, and Visions: Experiencing Religion and Explaining Experience from Wesley to James (Princeton, 1999)

Ann Taves, The Household of Faith: Roman Catholic Devotions in Mid-Nineteenth-Century America (University Press of Virginia, 1986)

D. Michael Quinn, Early Mormonism and the Magic World View (Signature Books, 1998, paperback)

D. Michael Quinn, The Mormon Hierarchy: Origins of Power (Signature Books, 1994)

D. Michael Quinn, The Mormon Hierarchy: Extensions of Power (Signature Books, 1997)

D. Michael Quinn (ed), The New Mormon History: Revisionist Essays on the Past (Signature Books, 1992)

Ronald O. Barney, One Side By Himself: The Life and Times of Lewis Barney, 1808-1894 (Utah State University Press, 2002)

Ronald O. Barney, Mormon Vanguard Brigade of 1847:  Norton Jacob’s Record (Utah State University Press, 2005)

Mormon Matters Podcast #69, “Patriarchal Blessings” featuring Richard Bushman and Jared Anderson, January 10, 2012

286: Sunstone 2015

Cover imageSunstone is a unique organization within the Mormon intellectual world. For more than forty years it has published a magazine and annually convened symposiums of many varieties, hosting voices from all over the Mormon spectrum. It has faced many challenges through the years but is now thriving again, continuing to fill niches that only it can do.

In this episode, Sunstone magazine’s  editor, Stephen Carter, and it outreach director and symposium planner, Lindsay Hansen Park, join Mormon Matters host Dan Wotherspoon for an overview of the organization and what it’s up to now, plus an introduction to some of the highlights of the upcoming Salt Lake Sunstone Symposium, which will be held in the University of Utah union building from 29 July to 1 August.

If you haven’t yet signed up for this year’s symposium, we hope this will push you over the edge! And if you can’t attend, may it whet your appetite for watching the sessions that will stream, and/or ordering audio recordings that will be available soon!

Please listen, and then share your thoughts and reactions in the comments section below!

284–285: Worthiness

free-to-be-2“Worthiness” is a word that pops up quite often in LDS circles. It is as prominent as it is primarily because it is invoked when talking about ecclesiastical interviews, most often tied to temple recommends but also associated with the charge bishops receive to regularly interview the ward’s youth. And it also has taken hold in Mormon minds with regard to discussions of the sacrament–especially the practice of some who, by choice or bishop’s counsel, elect to not partake of this ordinance.

But is the term and concept of “worthiness” helpful, or does it too often lead to some having negative feelings about themselves that in no way reflect true gospel principles? For instance, we have all likely known people who equate failures to meet particular behavioral standards for entrance into the temple, and in Mormon parlance are therefore excluded for “worthiness” reasons, as meaning they are not worthy of God’s love. It’s a tie too many make. Similarly, some will think that having a difficult time battling to change something about themselves means that they shouldn’t partake of the sacrament, that by so doing after not having been more successful in showing God their determination to do better they might be “drinking damnation” to their souls (a poor understanding of I Corinthians 11:29). In this way, they then deny themselves a chance to be strengthened by their participation.

In this episode, Les Blake, Kerstin Koldewyn, and Matt Jones join Mormon Matters host Dan Wotherspoon for an in-depth discussion of the “W-word” and how it affects Mormon lives. Are there better ways than “assessing worthiness” to think about the purposes of ecclesiastical interviews? How can we improve the settings in which LDS adults counsel and teach youth? How might we change our approach or language about these encounters that eliminates the sense of them being a “worthiness” check, or that could ever lead a person to a negative internalization about their status as–always and ever–“beloved”? What about the scriptures? When they speak of “unworthiness,” is it ever in the context of the Divine saying someone has so offended as to be unworthy of God’s love, aid, comfort? Furthermore, what do the scriptures say is the key criterion for deciding about partaking of the sacrament? Should a bishop or stake president ever suggest (or urge in even stronger terms) that someone not participate in this ordinance? How do concepts of “guilt” and “shame” play into our ideas about worthiness? Can we do better there, as well?

We hope you will listen to this episode and then share your thoughts and experiences below!


The Dynamics of Guilt and Shame,” Mormon Matters 51, November 2011

James E. Faulconer, “Remembrance,” FARMS Review 19, no. 2 (2007): 71–87.

283: Being an Ally

EthnicityEvery group that struggles for greater voice, rights, and fairness welcomes and draws strength from “allies,” people who are not a member of that group yet stand up for or work (mostly) behind the scenes to further the cause. It’s an important role, and one that can be very satisfying, but it’s also an unusual position as allies don’t typically lead. The stories of being silenced or suffering injustices is not theirs to tell. It also contains many challenges. In some ways, being an ally is fun, as activism on issues often garners praise and camaraderie, but it is also full of pitfalls. Are we making this cause “about me”? Am I wearing my role as a badge of honor? Or are we truly in the trenches, willing to be in the background, to be taught and changed by the stories we will learn? Being an ally also carries great responsibilities to be well-informed, well-spoken, and patient as we teach and inform. Allies must know their facts and understand a group’s larger goals. Allies also generally enjoy a “privilege” not shared by members of the group they are working alongside —being straight, white, able-bodied, healthy in body and mind, economically advantaged, etc.—generally unearned and so often unrecognized. How can allies come to understand their privilege and to use it in helpful ways?

In this episode, three people who work as allies—Jody England Hansen, Jerilyn Hassel Pool, and Mark Barnes—join Mormon Matters host Dan Wotherspoon for a discussion of this role (even perhaps “calling”) of being an ally. What have they learned on their journeys as allies for various causes? What have been the most gratifying things? The toughest?

Please listen to the episode and then ask questions or share your own experiences being an ally!



“Male Allies,” Conversation Seven, Ordain Women

Ordain Women–Male Ally Conversation, video of a Google Hangout conversation (hosted by Mark Barnes)

Fatima Salleh, Keynote Address at Sunstone Symposium “Theology From the Margins,” 14 March 2015

Chelsea Shields on Infants on Thrones podcast, “Infants on Feminists, Part 1” and “Infants on Feminists, Part 2