SYLLABUS: Kathleen Flake, “Mormonism and American Culture”

RELC 2215, University of Virginia Religious Studies Department 2017

Course Description:

In the nineteenth century, Mormonism had the distinction of being one of the most overtly persecuted religions in the United States. Today, its chief representative, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, is the nation’s fourth-largest religious body and has a reputation for hyper-patriotism and middle class mores. In addition to introducing who the Mormons are, their beliefs, and their religious practices, this seminar will use their story to better understand religion and its adaptive strategies. More specifically, we will be asking: What is the American idea of being properly religious? How did conflicts over Mormonism help define the legal limits of religious liberty and, even today, why does it serve as a test of public tolerance for religion? How have Latter-day Saint teachings about modern revelation, gender, race, sex and marriage, as well as controversies about whether or not Mormons are Christian, positioned and repositioned Mormons within American society? We will approach these discussions from a variety of perspectives: historical, sociological, ethnographic, and theological.

Course Objectives and Learning Goals:

  • Understand the basic history, beliefs, and practices of Mormonism.
  • Gain insight into the general themes of American religion as reflected in the origins and development of Mormonism.
  • Identify the sources and significance of the tensions within Mormonism and between the Mormonism and American culture.
  • Increase capacity to understand and relate to diverse religious institutions and opinions.

Required Texts:

  • Claudia Bushman, Contemporary Mormonism. ISBN 978-0742562387
  • Richard Bushman, Joseph Smith and the Beginnings of Mormonism. ISBN 0252060121
  • Kathleen Flake, Politics of Religious Identity: The Seating of Senator Reed Smoot,
    Mormon Apostle. ISBN 978-0807855010
  • Adam Miller, Letters to a Young Mormon (Provo: Neal A Maxwell Institute, 2013) ISBN
  • Matthew Bowman, The Mormon People: The Making of an American Faith. ISBN
  • Hokulani K. Aikau, Chosen People, a Promised Land: Mormonism and Race in Hawai’i.
    ISBN 0816674620
  • Christine Talbot, A Foreign Kingdom: Mormons and Polygamy in American Political
    Culture, 1852-1890. ISBN 0252079574

All other readings are filed under “Resources” on UVA Collab at In addition, MormonWiki and The Encyclopedia of Mormonism contain short articles written by Mormon and non-Mormon scholars on every subject treated in this course. If you have questions as you go along or if you want more suggestions for reading on any given topic, these sites can help.

Official information about The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is available at three sites designed for three audiences: for members, for non-members, and Newsroom for media outlets. This most populous representation of the Mormon movement will be the focus of our studies. Reference will be made, however, to other churches which trace their origins to Joseph Smith, such as the Community of Christ and Restoration Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints.