LOGAN –There was a historic moment in the field of Mormon studies 10 years ago. That was when the Utah State University Religious Studies program created the Arrington Chair. Named for former USU professor and Mormon scholar Leonard Arrington, it was the first endowed professorship at a secular university in the world specifically focused on Mormon history and culture. Philip Barlow has held the position since.
Barlow said an increasing amount of other scholars around the nation are realizing the importance of studying Mormonism. More universities have also followed USU in creating endowed professorships. He said Mormonism’s size and youthfulness is taken into consideration, the national interest in studying the religion is “disproportionately strong.”
“The field of Mormon Studies has been growing quite a bit over the last generation,” he said. “But the formal establishment of it in the academies signals a new maturity in the academy and in the Mormon culture that recognizes that this is a good thing to have an academic, even-handed, fair, but scholarly rigorous treatment of Mormonism.”
According to Barlow, there are several reasons for the increasing interest. One is simply the availability of material to be studied. Because of the mandate members of the LDS church have to keep records, Barlow said the amount of records is “incomparably rich for a movement so young.”
Another reason is the religion’s relative youth, which is less than 200 years old. Barlow pointed to work done by non-Mormon scholar Jan Schipps, who argued that while Mormonism is a Christian religion, it differs enough from traditional Christianity that it can be considered a new religious tradition. Barlow said that idea makes it a “gold mine” for scholars who want to understand how a religion adapts, expands and moves past cultural, national or language boundaries – just like the early Christian and Islam movements did.
“That same process happens in Mormonism,” Barlow said. “Only we can study it much more thoroughly because it is alive and here and the Mormons are with us.
“It is sort of like we have a time machine and can go back to the second century of the Christian era.”
In addition to those reasons, Barlow said the LDS church is “just plain interesting.”
“Mormonism is a fascinating thing,” he said. “It is perhaps the most controversial, colorful, disproportionately-impacting religious movement on the wider culture in American history for a religion that was born here, that was native to America.”
The church itself has aided the recent growth in scholarly interest. Barlow said the church had been more protective and leery of being misrepresented in the past, but has been more transparent and less defensive in the last 10 to 15 years. It has even aided USU’s program. In October, the LDS church donated $1 million to USU’s Mormon studies program to help ensure the Arrington Chair lives on.
Barlow said the donation came “no strings attached” with hopes Mormonism “will get treated fairly out in the world.”
“In the age of the internet, there are all sorts of self-appointed commenters that aren’t always fully-equipped to do that at an academic level,” Barlow said.
The $1 million donation is about one-third of what USU needs to create a permanent position once Barlow leaves. Another $500,000 was donated anonymously in a matching grant.
Barlow said there is currently no degree specifically in Mormon studies, but that some get a degree in religious studies and focus on Mormonism.
He said the study of Mormonism benefits everybody, not just Mormons.
“Mormonism is not just for Mormons any more than the study of Russia is just for Russians or the study of the United States is just for Americans,” he said. “It is really a much more important topic than that.
“You don’t understand the culture that you’re operating in if you just have a street-level understanding of the religion around you. Similarly, you don’t really function as a competent citizen out in the world if you don’t understand something about the formal study of politics or history.”