The LDS Church and the growing Mormon Studies field

An operation for a bleeding ulcer topped Elder Marlin K. Jensen's to-do list when his tenure as the LDS Church historian/recorder ended in 2012.

He offered his ulcer as metaphor for the growing pains of the past 30 or 40 years in the telling of Mormon history during a panel discussion on Thursday night on "The LDS Church and the Academic Study of Mormonism."

"We've learned we're much better off to be friends with the academy rather than enemies," said Elder Jensen, an emeritus General Authority Seventy of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

The panel discussion drew a standing-room-only crowd of more than 100 to a hall in the Tanner Humanities Center at the University of Utah. It was the last of four discussions hosted by Brian Birch, the first Marlin K. Jensen Scholar in Residence for Mormon Studies. Birch is a Utah Valley University professor teaching a course at the U. this semester titled, "The Intellectual Life of Mormonism."

The panelists agreed that a formerly insular church that once viewed the outside study of its history with suspicion now openly welcomes Mormon Studies programs at universities around the nation, but Elder Jensen and others said it came with a price for many church historians.

"When I was a young student there was considerable angst about church history," said BYU history professor Grant Underwood, a former co-chairman of Mormon Studies Group in the American Academy of Religion. "We have tremendous examples of the most rigorous kind of faithful scholarship and examples of painful tensions over anti-intellectualism."

Birch said the church's expanding transparency about its history makes it a fascinating time to consider its scriptural mandate to learn by study and by faith. He pointed out that many of the texts cited in the church's own recently published scholarly Gospel Topics essays on doctrine and history were exactly those previously viewed with suspicion.

The panelists cited the Information Age as one obvious reason for the evolution.

"There was no way on earth that the Church History Department could be anything but transparent," Elder Jensen said, "and it began to look at the vast holdings it has and their value in the marketplace of ideas."

The internet wasn't the only impetus, however. Underwood described a turn-of-the century meeting for principals of the Joseph Smith Papers Project where Elder Dallin H. Oaks and Elder Boyd K. Packer of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles made presentations that illustrate the elusive blend of faith and reason.

Elder Oaks said that the many planned volumes of the project wouldn't be worth doing if they weren't credible to scholars outside the church. Elder Packer then said they wouldn't be worth doing if they weren't accessible to church members.

Projects like the Gospel Topics essays and the Joseph Smith Papers have put the Church History Department at the forefront of the effort. Through those projects, department members have regularly considered how their work could model faithful scholarship, said Lisa Tait, an award-winning author and historian at the LDS Church History Library.

"We have talked about the idea of embracing scholarship, embracing the perspectives, the methods and techniques and strategies and sources and knowledge that are out there, and how can we model encountering and evaluating and working with those sources in a way that will help members of the church to maybe develop more sophisticated, more complex encounters and orientation with those."

Tait said the Church History Department could be at the epicenter, a place where the embrace, navigation and negotiation with the academy has played out on the front lines.

"Can the embrace of scholarly norms and standards be expanded to inform the other channels in the institution?" she asked. "What would it look like to have Ph.D.'s in the curriculum department? … To me that's one of the real tests about whether and how Mormonism forms its relationship to the secular academy."

The Information Age has its blessings and curses, and the curses work against real understanding of complex issues, said J. Spencer Fluhman, director of the Maxwell Institute of Religious Scholarship at Brigham Young University and co-chair of the Mormon Studies Group in the American Academy of Religion.

"It's how short everyone wants the explanations," he said. "The hunger for the Twitter response is subverting the skills that I bring to the table as a trained academic historian. While I can cheer on every move toward candor and full disclosure, it's getting harder and harder to actually get at meaning because the appetite for sustained argument is evaporating."