Mormon History?
March 4, 2013 5:37 PM   Subscribe

How does Brigham Young University teach American History? Do they tell students that Jesus actually came to America? And how do they deal with the story that Missouri was the real Garden of Eden?
posted by mmf to Education (14 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
I received my undergraduate degree from BYU. In my experience, the topics you are referencing, which are semi-doctrinal and not necessarily even agreed-upon or universally believed truth claims of Mormonism, are the subject of courses of study in the university's religion department, and not the topic of History classes. In fact, I suspect that you'd be hard pressed to find a BYU History professor who believes in those popular cultural versions of Mormon folk belief. And you'd probably find serious divisions among even the religion faculty on those and other topics, as well.
posted by The World Famous at 5:49 PM on March 4, 2013 [8 favorites]

Syllabus of Hist 220 (US History to 1870) (pdf); syllabus of Hist 221 - 1807-present (pdf).
posted by rtha at 5:56 PM on March 4, 2013 [5 favorites]

I'm pretty sure Jesus coming to America is definitely universal Mormon doctrine, it's the whole point of the Book of Mormon. (I grew up Mormon, everyone I knew believed it.)

Having said that, I wouldn't expect it to be taught in an American History class at BYU any more than a Middle Eastern History class at a Catholic university would talk about Jesus's life there.

The Missouri thing, on the other hand, almost no Mormons believe that.
posted by mmoncur at 10:27 PM on March 4, 2013 [2 favorites]

Yes. Good/ethical/accredited religious schools keep their doctrine out of non-religious classes.
posted by gjc at 3:43 AM on March 5, 2013

Well, except for the fact that Tacitus, Pliny the Younger, and others mention Jesus in their historic writings, not as part of a religious debate. Clearly, their writings could be part of a Catholic (or any other) history class on that era.
As mmoncur stated, the concept of Jesus coming to America is what the Book of Mormon is about, so I would expect some debate in about the historicity of his visit to America.
posted by mmf at 7:22 AM on March 5, 2013

BYU is very good at keeping religion in the religion classes, and history (or science) in the history (or science) classes. Speculation isn't useful when it's taught as fact.
posted by blue_beetle at 7:53 AM on March 5, 2013

Clearly, their writings could be part of a Catholic (or any other) history class on that era.

Sure. It seems like at least part of your question is really more about historiography - that is, what is and isn't included in things we call "history," in what ways, and how that gets decided/how that evolves. If you're really curious about BYU and its American history classes specifically, you can always try emailing the professors who teach them. They may or may not get back to you, depending on their schedules and how you word your email.
posted by rtha at 8:28 AM on March 5, 2013 [2 favorites]

If you're interested in how intelligent people who believe in the literal truth of the Book of Mormon make those beliefs work with the historical and scientific facts, a good starting point might be the works of former BYU professor Hugh Nibley. While this may not have been addressed in History 101, BYU students who were interested in the Book Of Mormon and history would probably be directed to articles and books like these.
posted by steinwald at 9:26 AM on March 5, 2013 [2 favorites]

Keep in mind that Nibley was an apologist of the most extreme order and that a lot of his work is quite outdated, particularly where archaeology and anthropology are concerned. I wouldn't start with Nibley for those reasons, frankly. Some of his religious writing is very interesting (and, in spite of its ponderous prose, I did enjoy Approaching Zion). But, in my humble opinion, he was more than a little off - and I say that with somewhat guarded respect as someone who met him a couple of times.

As mmoncur stated, the concept of Jesus coming to America is what the Book of Mormon is about,

Although I agree that most Mormons believe some version of that, the fact is that the Book of Mormon makes no mention of America or of any known or verifiable geographic location in its actual text. Moreover, the mainstream beliefs of church leaders as to the location of the purported events in the Book of Mormon have been so variable and have changed so much over the course of the church's history that I think it's more than a little misleading to simply say "Jesus coming to America," since that oversimplification leads to the misunderstanding that the Book of Mormon is about Christ coming to the United States of America, which is not the case.

So for a History professor (or an Anthropology, Archaeology, or other professor) to teach about the Book of Mormon's purported record of Christ's appearance to the ancient civilization of the Book of Mormon in connection with any particular geographic region, civilization, or known historic event would mean departing both from the substance of their academic discipline and from the content of the Book of Mormon and delving into areas of Mormon belief that, though widespread, are nevertheless ever-shifting folk beliefs that are best characterized as zealous speculation and apologetics. In my experience at BYU, professors outside the College of Religious Education simply do not do that as part of their academic courses, and stay away from it in other contexts, as well.

rtha's link to the syllabus for History 220 and 221 are somewhat helpful, but those are American History courses (i.e. the history of the USA), which one would not expect to cover alleged events 2,000 years before the USA existed, let alone something that allegedly happened in an unknown location speculated to be somewhere in North, Central, or South America - even if the professor considered those events to be sufficiently well-substantiated to be part of a history class.

Given that many Mormons believe (independent of what the church actually teaches) that the events of the Book of Mormon took place somewhere in Mesoamerica, it might be more helpful to look at the syllabi for the courses the Anthropology Department characterizes as "new world archaeology courses." (Item 3 on this page). I haven't been able to find the syllabus for one of those courses online, but someone else might have better luck. Since there is (as far as I know) no evidence that the events or peoples of the Book of Mormon existed anywhere in the Americas (or anywhere else), and since BYU's archaeologists and anthropologists tend to be extremely well-respected in the international communities of their disciplines - particularly with regard to Mesoamerican studies - I would be shocked if any of them ever taught anything about the subject in their courses other than to make abundantly clear that the evidence does not support Mormon apologists' speculation.

Topics like "Cumorah and the Limited Mesoamerican Theory" tend to be covered by BYU's religion department or the Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship, rather than by the department of Anthropology. And even on the Maxwell Institute's own website, Noel B. Reynolds' "Book of Mormon Authorship Revisited: The Evidence for Ancient Origins" bears a disclaimer in the header of every page that states: "The views in this article are the views of the author and do not necessarily represent the position of the Maxwell Institute, Brigham Young University, or The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints."

This is a fantastic question, by the way. I was pretty sensitive to this issue and watched out for it as a BYU student. I wonder if the situation is similar at other universities affiliated with churches. I assume that Notre Dame history professors, for example, do not teach that St. Joseph of Cupertino, St. Francis of Assisi, St. Alphonsus Liguori, or anyone else was actually prone to miraculous levitation, and I assume that those teaching courses on the ancient history of the Middle East do not teach that the events recorded in the Old Testament are actual, historic events that really happened as reported. But maybe I'm mistaken.
posted by The World Famous at 11:22 AM on March 5, 2013 [5 favorites]

Ooh, yeah - TWF hits the nail exactly with Mesoamerican history. I was (obviously) thinking more narrowly about Smith's journey and his role in both Mormon and American history, and how the story of that role gets told in secular classes vs more sectarian/religious classes.

We spent a some time in the desert SW this past fall, and although there is all kinds of evidence of human habitation and culture (e.g. Chaco Culture) from a long time past, it is very, very difficult to interpret what that evidence means even when it's stuff (like, buildings and towns and cities even) from a thousand years ago, let alone longer.
posted by rtha at 11:46 AM on March 5, 2013

This won't answer your question, but I was at a history museum conference in Salt Lake City last October and throughout the week we heard from a few Mormon historians. I admit I was a bit eye-rolly at what I thought was an oxymoron, but to a person, the historians were learned and articulate and the papers/addresses they gave were informative, honest, aligned with mainstream thought in the discipline, and fascinating. In short, it looks like Mormons can produce good historians.

Somewhat related will be this post about Mormon archaeology. Though I would say that I expect the same schism between "Mormons who are archaeologists" and "Mormon archaeology" exists between "Christians who are archaeologists" and "Biblical archaeology." That is to say, that assuming the truth of a hypothesis and looking for evidence to support it isn't good archaeology no matter where you trained.
posted by Miko at 12:18 PM on March 5, 2013 [1 favorite]

You can also see the list of faculty in the BYU history department here.

Note that while many of the full-time professors (as an exmple) did attend BYU at some point, not one of them received their Ph.D's from one would expect of any diverse academic department. Instead you've got History Ph.D's from

University of Wisconsin
University of Arizona
University of Michigan
University of Chicago
University of California

It's not smoking-gun proof, but I'd be pretty shocked if all these professors, after having undergone rigorous Ph.D defenses all over the country at highly respected shools would ever be able come to an agreement that the BYU history department's curriculum should include anything outside of the realm of actual history.

Regardless of the institution's ties to the Mormon church, BYU has a reputation and several accreditations to maintain; they would gain nothing by adding religious speculation into a history course, and I've never seen any evidence of it occurring.
posted by Doleful Creature at 3:30 PM on March 5, 2013

For what it's worth, while the actual Chapter-and-Verse of the Book of Mormon might not mention Jesus in the Americas specifically, the Introduction of most editions, including the current one, does explicitly say that.
posted by mmoncur at 9:40 PM on March 5, 2013 [1 favorite]

That's correct, mmoncur. Joseph Smith's Introduction to the Book of Mormon (and not the book itself) references "the Americas," not "America," and certainly not the United States of America, which would typically be the subject of an American History university course. That's part of what I was trying to get at in my answer above. Sorry if I was not clear.
posted by The World Famous at 11:05 AM on March 6, 2013

« Older Worldly, broad achievement, internships...   |   Summer (Winter?) of Code Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.