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Peter Thuesen, “Mormonism and American Culture”

R397 and A303 Indiana University School of Liberal Arts 2017

Course Description:

The Latter-day Saint tradition, or Mormonism, is the most remarkable of the new religious movements born during an explosion of denominational energy in the early American republic. The tradition traces its roots to the first vision received by its founder and prophet, Joseph Smith, in 1820, when he was only 14 years old. Three years later, an angel revealed to Smith the location of a trove of ancient scriptures, engraved on gold plates and buried in a hillside in upstate New York. Smith’s translation of these plates became the Book of Mormon (1830), a uniquely American sequel to the Bible and the basis of the fundamental Mormon principle of ongoing revelation. Smith’s martyrdom in 1844 in Carthage, Illinois, at the hands of an angry mob foreshadowed the hostility the Saints would encounter as they trekked to the Great Basin to establish their American Zion in Utah. Yet despite the animosity between the Saints and the wider society, the LDS Church would go on to become a major institution that today claims some 15 million members worldwide. This course will explore the reasons for Mormon success and will wrestle with the meaning of the Latter-day Saint experience for American history and culture.

Learning Outcomes:

Because of its relatively recent origins, the Mormon tradition is an ideal case for studying a religion in themaking. The Latter-day Saints also offer a unique window on how religions evolved under the U.S. Constitution’s system of the separation of church and state. Accordingly, this course will focus not only on the basics of Mormonism itself—its history, beliefs, and practices—but also on questions of wider significance in the study of American religion. By the end of the semester, you should be able to:

  • Discuss the major issues in Mormon studies, including the question of whether the Latter-day Saint tradition is a form of restorationist Christianity, an entirely new religion, or some combination of the two.
  • Distinguish between the four parts of the Mormon canon of scripture and show how the idea of ongoing revelation, or prophecy, has shaped the tradition.
  • Apply theoretical concepts in religious studies to understanding the Book of Mormon’s role as scripture.
  • Summarize Mormonism’s principal doctrines—i.e., the main points of LDS theology.
  • Explain how the early Mormon experiment with plural marriage (polygamy) tested the limits of “free exercise” (the U.S. Constitutional guarantee of religious freedom from government interference).
  • Recount the evolution of Mormon participation in U.S. public life, from the aborted presidential campaign of the prophet Joseph Smith in 1844 to the presidential campaign of Mitt Romney in 2012.
  • Describe the religious worldviews of contemporary American Latter-day Saints, including their attitudes toward family, gender, sexuality, and the afterlife.

Required Course Texts:

  • The Book of Mormon, the Doctrine and Covenants, and the Pearl of Great Price (LDS triple combination edition, 1981).
  • Claudia L. Bushman, Contemporary Mormonism: Latter-day Saints in Modern America (Praeger, 2006).
  • Richard Lyman Bushman, Mormonism: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford, 2008).
  • Kathleen Flake, The Politics of American Religious Identity: The Seating of Senator Reed Smoot, Mormon Apostle (University of North Carolina Press, 2004).
  • Terryl L. Givens, The Book of Mormon: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford, 2009)
  • Various articles or book chapters (all available as PDFs on Canvas).