Mormon studies at the Pacific Northwest’s AAR Conference, May 3–5

05.06.2013 | Blair Hodges

Over the weekend I had the opportunity to present a paper at the American Academy of Religion’s annual Pacific Northwest Region conference at Seattle University. The Mormon studies sessions were the first of their kind for the PNW gathering. They were sponsored by Kirk Caudle, an independent scholar from Portland, and Susanna Morrill, associate professor of religious studies at Lewis and Clark College. Broken out over three days, 19 scholars delivered papers on Mormonism. My notes here are confined to the Saturday sessions. Hopefully, these rough sketches of the presentations give a sense of the quality of work exhibited by these scholars and provide an opportunity for people to become more aware of the sort of questions currently being approached in Mormon studies. Comments, etc. are welcome on the MI Facebook page. —BHodges

Kirk Caudle, “Salvation Is Now: Joseph Smith and Salvation through the Recollection of Pre-existent Knowledge.”

Caudle earned a master’s degree in spiritual traditions and ethics from Marylhurst University. His paper explored the idea that, for Joseph Smith, knowledge was the key to salvation. But it was a particular kind of knowledge—specifically dealing with the divine potential of human beings. Smith coupled divine commandments with knowledge of a premortal existence of humans. Following Richard Bushman, Caudle observed that for Mormons, “the law [consisted] less of forbidding commandments than of instructions on how to reach heaven. The laws were helpful and informative rather than distancing. Knowledge made heaven accessible.” Smith’s theology forged an “inseparable connection between the deification of the human soul and the obtainment of knowledge. Ultimately, humans come to earth in order to discover the divine knowledge that is already in them.”

Kimberly Berkey, “‘The Earth Is Yours’: Sabbath and Biblical Covenant Theology in D&C 59.”

Berkey earned her bachelor’s degree in Ancient Near Eastern studies from Brigham Young University. For this paper, Berkey performed a close reading of Doctrine and Covenants section 59. She argued that the text is “an excellent microcosm of biblical engagement,” that it performs a careful and deep theological engagement with the Bible by incorporating elements from Genesis to Malachi, from Matthew to Revelation. In the revelation text’s redelivering of the Decalogue, its positive commandments to be gladdened by God’s creation, and its reflections on the Sabbath observance, it offers an opportunity to reflect on ecotheology.

David Smith, “The Nature and Legitimacy of Mormon Hermeneutics.”

Smith lectures on the philosophy of religion, early Christianity, and ethics at Central Washington University. He argued that “Mormons have approached the Christian Bible in the same way that the early Christians approached the Hebrew Bible, reading it in light of their own individual and communal religious experiences.” At issue was the legitimacy of scriptural reinterpretations which appear to break with the original context or intent of a biblical text. He pointed to Luke’s repurposing of Isaiah’s prophecy about a child born of a “young woman” into a foretelling of the virgin birth of Jesus Christ. He compared this reworking to some of the proof-texts Mormons offer from the Bible as though they foretell aspects of the Restoration, such as the Psalm which describes truth springing forth from the earth, reading it as intimating the coming forth of the Book of Mormon. Such repurposing tends to be highly literal, and beyond the context of the scripture as originally recorded.

Blair Hodges, “An Overview of Intellectual Disability in Mormon Thought and History.”

I recently earned a master’s in religious studies from Georgetown University and now work at the Maxwell Institute at BYU. My paper was drawn largely from my thesis, which explored ways that wider American and British culture influenced the development of Mormon theology in regards to people with intellectual disabilities. The earliest Mormon publications on the subject were focused on the perennial question of what a person must do to be saved. Mormons taught the need to learn and obey God’s laws. Those “without understanding” were exempted from this duty. As the Mormon plan of salvation developed, disability came to be seen as an obstacle to eternal progression and a mark of cultural and familial inferiority. Mormons began arguing that the system of plural marriage could do away with such disabilities, thus forestalling further theological reflection on the status of people with disabilities themselves. As the practice of polygamy was jettisoned, Mormons generated various explanations regarding people with disabilities which have not received official approval, but which maintain a place in popular Mormon thought.

Stuart Parker, “Nephite Turtle-People and Handsome Lake the Mormon Prophet: The LDS Aboriginal Neo-traditionalism of Princess Little Pigeon.”

Parker is a lecturer in US and Latin American history at Simon Fraser University. He examined the writings of Princess Little Pigeon, an AIM activist and RLDS member, who helped create the Indigenous Peoples Ministry, an evangelist branch of the RLDS Church through the 1970s and 80s. Princess Little Pigeon wove elements of Joseph Smith’s revelations together with Seneca Indian prophet Handsome Lake, “creatively integrating Mormon and neo-traditionalist aboriginal worldviews.” Ultimately, the movement was unsustainable “both organizationally and ideologically.” While the RLDS Church ostensibly had no objection to AIM’s participation in “The Longest Walk,” they were evicted from the Kansas stake offices of the RLDS Church for “hogging office resources and smoking in the building.”

Laura Rutter Strickling, “‘See How Many People I Done Raised?’: African American Women of Inner City Baltimore Talk on Mothers and Mothering, and Their Conversion to the LDS Faith.”

Strickling is assistant director of a research center on education at the University of Maryland, Baltimore. Her paper was based on oral interviews she conducted with seventeen African American members of the LDS Church in Baltimore. She discovered their conversion narratives were tightly wound together with “recollections of their own mothers, becoming a mother, and the act of mothering among female family members.” She included photographs and excerpts of recordings from the interviews. The women spoke of family violence, loneliness, and poverty, as well as revelation and spiritual strength. One of the more striking memories of many of the women involved the ordinance of baptism for the dead. Participating in the rite allowed the women to feel a deep connection to women who had fostered their childhood faith.

Ka Ki Kwok, “The Experiences of Hong Kong Chinese Mormon Women.”

Kwok is a research assistant at The Hong Kong Institute of Education. Her paper argued that recent Mormon feminist discussions have centered on the voices and experiences of white Mormon women in the United States. She sought to highlight perspectives from Mormon women in a different cultural context, that of Hong Kong. She based the paper on interviews conducted with Chinese Mormon women. In Chinese culture, deference is given to the patriarch of the home in or out of the Mormon context, complicating the Church’s move toward a more equal view of marriage. At the same time, Chinese women are encouraged to serve missions and serve in the Church. The culture of honor and shame helps explain this paradox in that it would be considered shameful to the family for a woman to take charge, but a woman who serves in the Church is seen to bring honor to a family. The voices of “previously unheard or marginalized voices [can] shed light on new aspects of these [feminist] debates.”

Rachel Hunt Steenblik, “On the Philosophy of Hospitality and Sister Missionaries.”

Steenblik earned a degree in Library & Information Science at Simmons College and is seeking a degree in philosophy and theology from Claremont Graduate University. Her paper built on previous work by other scholars on the LDS Church’s policies regarding male and female missionaries. “Sister missionaries” have always been “welcome, not invited,” as opposed to male missionaries, who have been expected to serve. She drew on philosophers Emmanuel Levinas and Jacque Derrida, both of whom explored the concept of “hospitality.” Roughly speaking, Levinas reflected on the responsibility humans feel for other humans, while Derrida suggested that hospitality to one person or group always entails inhospitality to another person or group due to human limitation. She argued that women have historically, implicitly been treated inhospitably in that they have not been asked as men have to serve full-time missions. She noted that men have not so much been invited as commanded to serve missions, but that the difference in the invitation extended to women and men nevertheless reflects a disparity of hospitality. She sees the recent policy change in regards to missionary ages as a step toward a more welcoming environment for women to serve missions.