The twentieth century was the century of Latter-day Saint history. The field of Mormon history transitioned from dueling polemics to a sophisticated scholarly conversation. Both Latter-day Saint and non-LDS historians came to appreciate and revel in the remarkable sources housed in archives in Salt Lake City and around the country. The institutions of modern Mormon intellectual life—the Mormon History Association and its Journal of Mormon History, Dialogue: a Journal of Mormon Thought, BYU Studies, and Sunstone—all featured pathbreaking and often revisionist scholarship on the Mormon past. Hundreds of graduate students, professional historians, and trained enthusiasts, LDS and non-LDS alike, pursued studies and eventually published papers on Mormon history. LDS historians won major national awards—even if not necessarily for their Mormon writings. University presses took notice and began to publish serious, well-reviewed studies of Mormonism. In short, Mormon history catapulted Mormonism into the echelons of intellectual respectability and in turn forever changed Mormonism.
The twenty-first century will be the century of Latter-day Saint theology. If Mormonism is to be a serious global religion—and it increasingly will be—then this will necessarily be the case. New religious movements and sects can get away without theology; aspiring world religions, even those with living prophets and apostles, can’t. On this score, I’ve got bad news and good news. The bad news is that there are currently exactly zero people in the world with full-time jobs as Mormon theologians. The good news is that will change, and probably sooner than most people realize.
Prediction 1: we’ll have a full-time Mormon theologian, probably in an endowed professorship, and very likely more than one, within the next decade.
Prediction 2: most if not all of those professional academic Mormon theologians will have come through the Mormon Theology Seminar.
The Mormon Theology Seminar is and will be to academic Mormon theology in the next two decades what Richard Bushman’s summer seminars have been to historically oriented academic Mormon studies over the past two decades. For that reason, the Mormon Theology Seminar may be the most important feature of Mormon intellectual life right now. Historians—who won’t lose their relevance, we’ll just have to share the stage—will look back and see the Mormon Theology Seminar as one of the essential contributions to twenty-first-century Mormon culture.
I wouldn’t have said any of this before participating in “the Seminar,” as Adam Miller humbly (and cheekily) wants us to call it. The idea of spending two weeks in some far-off location reading one chapter of scripture—and sometimes not even the whole chapter—seemed just a little too precious.
It turns out you can in fact spend two weeks reading, writing about, and discussing one chapter of scripture, provided it’s one as rich as Mosiah 4. This is particularly the case if you are in the fellowship of a brilliant, interdisciplinary, and collegial group of scholars. I gained a new appreciation for the richness and depth of the texts handed down in the Mormon tradition as scripture, as well as for the richness and depth of the scholars the tradition has produced to engage that scripture. In the hands of these creative and faithful minds—“disciple-scholars” in the Maxwell Institute’s parlance—meaning and possibility burst forth from seemingly every word and phrase. Five hours of non-stop conversation each afternoon, after a few hours of individual writing every morning, simply wasn’t enough to cover four verses.
As a Mormon historian, I’ve always wondered what it was like to be there with Leonard Arrington and his entourage in the 1960s and 1970s – when it all seemed so new and fresh, and there lay a world of possibility in seemingly every new source or idea. Now I have a sense of how it felt, and it’s intoxicating.
If you want to know where Mormon thought is headed, keep an eye on the theologians.
Hear Patrick Mason’s presentation here.
In this guest post, Patrick Mason talks about his experience at the 2018 Mormon Theology Seminar at the Cittadella Ospitalità in Assisi, Italy. Mason is Howard W. Hunter Chair of Mormon Studies and Professor of Religion at Claremont Graduate University, where he also serves as Dean of the School of Arts and Humanities. A scholar of American religious history and Mormon studies, Mason is the author or editor of several books, including most recently What Is Mormonism? A Student’s Introduction, Out of Obscurity: Mormonism since 1945, and Directions for Mormon Studies in the 21st Century. See more Seminar reflections here.