California graduate university takes academic approach to Mormonism

Published: Wednesday, Feb. 15 2012 5:00 a.m. MST

The School of Religion at Claremont Graduate University.

Provided by Claremont Graduate University

CLAREMONT, Calif. — Years before the so-called "Mormon Moment," a private graduate-only research university in California began educating students in earnest about the religion.

Claremont Graduate University has been offering graduate-level Mormon studies courses since 2005.

Founded in 1925, CGU has a current enrollment of 2,177. The School of Religion, one of nine schools in the university, has 208 students.

The decision to add Mormon studies to the curriculum came from the School of Religion's desire to have representation of religions not normally at the table with ones such as Protestantism, Judaism and Islam.

"You had to have a broader range of what is religion, especially in the United States context," said Tammi Schneider, dean of the School of Religion. "To have no classes in Mormonism would be silly."

Schneider says there was some nervousness about implementing the Mormon studies program, just as there is with any program on a religion, because the sponsoring council sometimes wants the approach to be more doctrinal than academic.

"We decided that it can be done, it can be done well and it can be done in a way that offends neither the academics nor the adherents to the religion," Schneider said. "I think thus far we have managed to do that."

The goal for Mormon studies at CGU is to approach the faith and its history objectively as scholars, says Patrick Mason, the Howard W. Hunter chair of Mormon Studies.

"We speak primarily in the language of scholarship while respecting the language of faith," Mason said.

Mormon studies classes at CGU came about through the efforts of the Latter-day Saint Council on Mormon Studies, which was formed in 2002 and has no official connection to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. After CGU began offering individual courses on Mormonism in 2005, the Howard W. Hunter Chair was established in 2008, ensuring that Mormon studies courses would be offered on a regular basis.

The chair was named for the 14th president of the LDS Church because of his connection to Southern California. President Hunter served as a stake president in Pasadena, and one of his children attended Claremont.

"I think it's perfect and a great honor for President Hunter's legacy and really a perfect fit for the program," said Mason, who was appointed as the new chair in 2011.

The first person to hold the position of chair was renowned Mormon scholar and LDS Church member Richard Bushman, author of "Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling." Bushman taught courses in Mormon studies and the history of religion in America. His wife, Claudia, and visiting scholar Armand Mauss also taught Mormon studies classes on campus. Bushman "did an amazing amount" for the program, Schneider said.

Mason received his bachelor's in history from Brigham Young University and master's degrees in history and international peace studies and a doctorate in American history from the University of Notre Dame. He taught at Notre Dame and the American University in Cairo. He is the author of "The Mormon Menace: Violence and Anti-Mormonism in the Antebellum South."

"Patrick is cutting edge in religion," Schneider said. "He's fresh, he's young, he's new, he's excited, he is smart. ... He's something really special."

Mason teaches a North American religion course and a Mormon studies class each semester.

The Mormon studies class differs each semester depending on student interest and needs, he said. Last fall the course was "Approaches to Mormonism," which looked at how different scholars have understood or approached the study of Mormonism.

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