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Kathryn Lofton and John Durham Peters, “Mormonism”

RLST 333, Yale University 2020

The late great Yale historian of slavery, David Brion Davis, once quipped that Mormon “history, in relation to American history, is much like Hamlet’s play-within-the-play.”  Many of the great problems in American history occur in concentrated form in the archive of Mormonism’s nineteenth-century emergence: the nature of democracy, family, violence, race, gender, sexuality, power, empire, art, music, scripture, land, immigration, secularization. But we see, too, in Mormonism something superseding the geography and chronology of the United States, something that joins a broader hermeneutic dilemma. To study Mormonism is to study questions that have worried thinkers since Plato; it is also to encounter a fascinating array of objects, ideas, practices, and modes of being. Mormonism is a phenomenon that invites a conflict of interpretations.

For some observers, Mormonism is an epithet, a poison, a problem; for others, Mormonism is a practice, a purpose, the bread of life. It’s both wave and particle. It’s radical and conservative. It’s insane and mundane. It’s deeply weird and definitionally conventional. This is not a course that decides where one ought to sit on these oppositional terms. We ask instead what makes a subject so inspiring to opposition. We do not consider the Mormon a subject of study as much as a prompt to ask what it is to study anything. This course, the first of its kind at Yale, does not reflect the recent efflorescence of Mormon Studies as an academic subfield as much as it reacts to that intellectual excitment. We consider Mormonism as an indicative problem in the history of interpretation.


Book of Mormon; doctrine; law & politics; literature; images; theatre; globalizing