Sensationalism? Nauvoo and the Angst of Tradition

Book reviews, especially as done back and forth among the academic community, are not always the friendliest areas of engagement but for the most part are professional and informative for a broad audience. Most often they are a reliable space where readers can quickly turn to get a sense of the feeling of a book and what it has to offer them as they figure out whether or not to spend their money on that volume or another. Fortunately, for readers, the author, and the publisher, Benjamin E. Park’s The Kingdom of Nauvoo: The Rise and Fall of a Religious Empire on the American Frontier has enjoyed praise from across the spectrum of lay and academic reviewers. From what I can tell almost every review has been positive or constructive except one.

Dr. Susan Easton-Black, then Susan Lindsay Ward Easton, completed her Ed.D. at Brigham Young University in 1979. Her dissertation, “Developmental Approach to Counselor Education: Progressive Model for Training Institutions,” evaluated the training models of counselors—”elementary school, secondary school, college, community agency, and in some instances, church setting” (p. 2)—and argued that counselors at the time received adequate intellectual training but were not shown how to implement that training in real life situations and therefore struggled to complete their tasks. The goal of her dissertation was to implement new methods in the curriculum of the counselor training master’s program at Brigham Young University in 1978, the year she started working at BYU.

One might wonder how an education scholar with no peer-reviewed publications as sole author (that I am aware of) in the field of early American history would get to the point where she felt comfortable enough to write such a condescending and belittling review, if we are generous enough to call it that, of a book written by a scholar trained at the University of Cambridge in early American history. According to the review, Park is a sensationalist who “uses few dates, his documentation is infrequent…and his summaries are superficial.” Beyond that, Park “pick[s] and choos[es]…facts” that “support [his] perspective.” If true, these critiques would seem to be detrimental to a book that hopes to shift scholarship and general knowledge about early Mormonism and American religion toward new horizons.

In her comments Easton-Black offers one possible way to explain the disparity between her approach to Nauvoo and Park’s. According to her, it is precisely that their perspectives are dissimilar that drives the problem. That is, surely, a key part of the disagreement, but it appears that Easton-Black is unaware that in the field of history perspective is not the key driving factor. Perspective, again, is an issue but the word should not be misunderstood as it applies here. Easton-Black does not have training in the historical method, did not go through a rigorous program of historical training at the graduate level, and is known for her approach to Mormon history through unsourced and oft-repeated anecdotes in her travels and love for Nauvoo and tourist destinations.

The fact that she is not a trained historian and shifted from a degree in education to teaching early Mormon history at BYU in the Religious Education department does provide key context to understand the divide. As another review has recently noted, many historians in Religious Education at BYU—historians who do not have graduate training in history or its related fields—have for years painted the Nauvoo period of Mormon history in strokes and brushes that don’t particularly reflect the reality of the historical moment. That review portrays the feeling of loss for the author when she realized that the Nauvoo she visited as a teenager was lost, “buried under layers of other people’s sentimentalized and grandiose pretensions.” It is disingenuous of Easton-Black, for example, to suggest that Kingdom of Nauvoo is infrequently sourced when pages 288–319 of the book are strictly covered in endnotes and her “review” provides her audience with two endnotes. One to cite the book and the other to cite a presentation Park gave at BYU.

Easton-Black suggests that readers will question Park’s ability to be a scholar because, as she implies, his book does not tell the truth. She had ample time and space in the review to offer specific responses to why “historians in yesteryear” rejected the depiction of Nauvoo, as she suggests, in their writing. She could have also clarified how those scholars would have been able to write better histories than a historian today when they did not have the important manuscripts now provided by the Joseph Smith Papers Project. Her previous work will unfortunately be the one not viewed as scholarly in generations to come, and “the truth” in the coming generations will rest more firmly on evidentiary ground than what can be found in the work of previous generations.

In a passing comment, Easton-Black also disparages Park’s education by suggesting that his graduate mentor did not train him well, “wondering who had been his mentor.” Michael O’Brien, Park’s mentor a Cambridge, might not be well known to Easton-Black but he is to any scholar deeply interested in the study of early American history. O’Brien won the Bancroft prize in 2005 for his two-volume set Conjectures of Order: Intellectual Life in the American South, 1810–1860, besides being nominated twice for the Pulitzer prize, among other awards he received during his academic career. While this may seem like a minor note it actually highlights the disconnect between Easton-Black and the important work done in broader early American history.

Final Thoughts

Some readers of the blog have noted that my posts have been, over the past couple of years, fairly negative toward the Religious Education department and related organizations. I would prefer that it wasn’t this way. I would prefer to not write the above response and others like it. But, as long as some members of the Religious Education department continue to write similar reviews of books that in reality, outside of that small group, are receiving broad praise for their contributions, these kinds of posts will remain relevant. It is far better to keep the broader readership in Mormon studies informed than to keep completely silent on these topics. In this case, I would hope and expect that most readers who stumble upon Easton-Black’s review will be able to read between the lines for what her “review” really is: an opportunity simply to ask: “Where is the author’s knowledge that Joseph Smith was a prophet and the Lord revealed his words to him?” Boundary maintenance is the function for this review and others like it, and with the supposed expansiveness of Mormon theology you would hope that the culture itself would allow scholars to be just that: scholars.

Rel Ed Faculty Who Fail to Launch

There is a curious rash of legitimate PhD holding, BYU Rel Ed faculty whose professional and intellectual development essentially culminated in their dissertations. This represents wastage of time and resources, both on the side of top flight training left fallow and, more disturbingly, vast expenditures of university monies, benefits, research funds, etc., to leave the sunk costs to students to the side in this discussion.

Rel Ed faculty with BYU’s version of tenure make, on the very low end, $80,000 per year, and many are near, over, or well past the $100,000 mark, plus excellent benefits. In the academic world, that is very good pay. Of course the constant churn of popular books and materials augments these numbers still further. Rel Ed faculty are very well remunerated.

But what is the university getting for all that expenditure on purported experts in their fields? In the case of several, the university is paying for what amounts to outdated knowledge, expertise level that is no higher than a newly minted PhD, refusal to participate in the standards of professional organizations, and inevitable atrophying of language, critical, writing, and research skills that should increase over a career, not begin to gather rust upon the PhD hooding ceremony.

I’m sure that colleagues in other BYU colleges and departments must be annoyed if not furious with these free-loading Rel Ed professors. Do you think that business school professors are granted tenure or promoted to full professor based upon Ensign articles, a Sperry Symposium paper included in an annual collection, and maybe a handful of BYU Studies publications? I’m sure if we looked closely we could find two professors, one in a normal department, one in Rel Ed, that graduated with legit PhDs in more or less the same year and compare their professional development. That would be instructive.

Here are some puzzling cases of BYU Rel Ed faculty who are pulling down enviable salaries and who were trained at premier graduate programs but have done nothing or next to nothing in their professional fields since their dissertations 10, 15, 20 years ago.

OK, who makes the list? Daniel Belnap, Frank Judd, Eric Huntsman, Kent Jackson (now retired), and Gaye Strathearn are first round ballots from the ancient scripture side. Who else? List anyone that comes to mind in the comments, and if you are aware of publications by these scholars in their respective fields since they completed their PhDs then that is likewise helpful. It would make everyone’s lives easier if they all posted academic CVs to their faculty profiles, but here we are.

BYU Religious Education’s Investment in Its Students

A major theme over the years at the Faith Promoting Rumor blog has been the department of Religious Education at Brigham Young University. Because BYU is known around the world as a religious university with a dedication to promulgating knowledge about the current and past state of religion in society, as well as training and preparing it students for the workforce, it would be natural to expect the university to house a department analogous to, say, the department of Theology at Notre Dame University, the department of Religious Studies at Brandeis University, the department of Religion at Baylor University, or the Catholic University of America’s School of Theology and Religious Studies.

This is not to say that BYU has to be “of the world,” but BYU itself recognizes the centrality of academic integrity and accredability to its mission. Since religion courses are part of the “University Core” of requirements (basically BYU’s general education requirements), one might assume that BYU is investing in a pool of professors in Religious Education that have training and expertise directly relating to the courses that they teach. This is important because BYU understands that it is training students to go on to jobs around the world, as well as prepare undergraduates for graduate work at prestigious universities around the globe. Two signs on campus at BYU intentionally welcome visitors and newcomers with the following slogans: “Enter to learn, Go Forth to Serve,” and “The World is Our Campus.” Coming at the question of how BYU invests in its students through the selection of faculty in Religious Education from the perspective that BYU is part of a broader academic community, it should go without saying that BYU would want to select only those who have the most relevant training for teaching students at the university level about religion in both its Church History and Doctrine and Ancient Scripture departments.

What would a potential faculty member in this sense look like? What makes them prepared to teach these courses? The requirements included in job postings at BYU for full-time faculty positions are all pretty similar: a potential hire must have a PhD in the specific area of expertise for the job or in a related field; they must be willing to teach a certain number of courses a year; they must be actively publishing research in their area of specialization; and most job descriptions end with the range of specializations that would qualify the person for the position. This list is both a good and a bad thing when it comes to Religious Education at the university. A quick description of the course requirements in the department will help to clarify.

First, according to the university’s website, all religion courses required for graduation must be taken at the Provo campus. No courses taken at other BYU campuses or in LDS Institutes qualify. The number of religion credits may vary depending on the number of transfer credits each student has, but all incoming freshman at the university will be required to take 14 credits in Religious Education (which amounts to seven classes altogether). Among those fourteen, and for every student regardless of credits transferred, it is required that each student takes four specific courses (with their departments): The Eternal Family (Church History and Doctrine), Foundations of the Restoration (Church History and Doctrine), Jesus Christ and the Everlasting Gospel  (Ancient Scripture), and Teachings and Doctrine of the Book of Mormon (Ancient Scripture). There are exceptions to the requirements of the first, third, and fourth courses—you can substitute them for other courses—but the differences are minimal.

The content taught in these courses—courses again required of every student that wishes to graduate from BYU—suggests that students should be able to expect a short list of specific qualities they would find in their professors. The professors (1) will have a PhD from an accredited university that is relevant to the course, (2) will be engaging with other specialists in their field by researching, writing, and publishing their work that allows others to engage with and critique what they have found or are arguing, and (3) that the university and department have done their due diligence in selecting the very best from a broad range of applicants. Unfortunately, it appears that departmental politics and a lengthy history of an aversion to “worldly” academic study have allowed a certain perspective to retain authority in Religious Education in regards to hiring new faculty members. This is seen among other things, for instance, in the fact that many of the faculty members in Religious Education who have received Continuing Faculty Status (BYU’s soft version of academic tenure) have been allowed to do so despite having little to no peer-reviewed publications in their respective fields.

Currently, there are 74 faculty members, 1 visiting faculty, and 24 part-time or Seminaries & Institutes employees listed on the faculty directory. Of the 74 faculty 6 of them are women (8%), a dismal number given the fact that many qualified women have applied for job openings and been rejected on grounds that might question the role of sexism if they took place in other university settings. While there are several faculty members in the department who have degrees that are relevant to the subject matter they teach, many of them have doctoral degrees in Computer Science, Educational Leadership, Family Studies, or, in one case, claims to have a PhD in Biblical Studies from an unaccredited bible college, ultimately a degree that would not count as fulfilling the PhD requirement in the job posting at BYU today. Many other faculty members were trained in Early American History, Religious Studies, Early Christianity, Archaeology, Early Judaism, Hebrew Bible, etc. Not all of these faculty members continue to engage directly with their fields upon getting hired at BYU, though, a focus that one would expect to find in any other academic setting.

There is a saying sometimes heard in the halls of Religious Education soon after a new hire is beginning to settle in: the faculty members there have a “higher purpose” in their teaching and that “it takes about five years to wash away the PhD.” This is unfortunate because if not for the PhD degree faculty members never would have been hired by the university in the first place. The effect of this mentality is seen on the CVs of the majority of the professors in the department (if they have a CV at all!). Most of them play inside baseball to the extent that they are not even engaging with the academic conversations of their fellow Mormon scholars but mostly writing and publishing the same thing over and over again for a devotional Mormon audience in Deseret Book (and its smaller imprints), Cedar Fort, self-publishing, or other related venues that allow them to circumvent the very foundation of the training that made them qualified for their jobs: peer-review.

To what extent does BYU ‘s department of Religious Education invest in their students? Currently it is not in providing faculty high in academic quality. To be sure, as previously mentioned, there are wonderful exceptions to that rule, but of the 74 faculty members how many of them fulfill the description in the regular job posting? The department also focuses on student evaluations that presumably show the high quality of spiritual engagement students are receiving, but I am skeptical that the evaluations really say what the department heads think they say. It is much easier for undergraduate students to take a 2 credit course that, if taken by the right professor, will have a minimal impact on their time and reading schedules, potentially freeing up time to socialize and do other things. One or two of those professors might also provide an abundance of hugs to their students, creeping out some students and exciting others. Stating in a course evaluation that one class was more or less “spiritual” might actually mean that it was more or less like their experience in church attendance where little intellectual effort is required. How can the department heads be sure that the evaluations actually represent the perfect blend of both spiritual and intellectual development, especially when many of the courses taught by less-qualified faculty present content more closely related to a glorified seminary or institute class? LDS youth experience a four-year cycle of information at church that becomes more and more familiar to them as they get older, and it is obvious why the focus is more devotional than intellectual at church. At a university, though, in a department where every student has to take and pay for required courses, students should expect to learn new things they’ve never heard before and be stretched intellectually. If department heads would look closer at the evaluations they might notice a trend in non-Religious Education courses about how students felt more fulfilled learning new things and experiencing the world a little differently for once.

The majority of the faculty in Religious Education voted against the current curriculum taught in Religious Education several years ago but it was implemented anyway. One might hope for a future BYU Religious Education where faculty members are better trained and vetted from relevant doctoral fields. These scholars would ideally work in a better version of Religious Education that focuses on the intellectual development of its students in ways similar to related departments at Notre Dame, Brandeis, Baylor, and the Catholic University of America. It would only take the realization of a few of the administrators at BYU and in the department of Religious Education to make these much needed changes. Unfortunately, echoing Thomas W. Simpson’s recent work on the history of Mormonism and its response to higher education, this “seems destined to elude [them] until the millennium, indefinitely postponed, comes at last.”